How to stop my unprofessional client emailing at odd hours?

Freelancer’s Question: I’ve been freelancing as a Virtual Assistant for the last two years but, stupidly, don’t have any formal contracts.

I took on a new client recently, and we’ve been testing the water with regards to retainer hours the last month - I’ve done (or tracked my time for) 60 hours. In practice though, I’ve done a LOT more hours than this and the interaction is starting to get really complicated.

Specifically, there is an expectation for me to both do work and respond to emails from the husband of the business-owner. Given he can send messages or phone at 11 o’clock at night, even at weekends, it’s all getting a bit much.

As a self-employed freelancer, I know I’m not the only one whose clients think they are always-on, but the messages, sometimes visible to others on social media, can also be a little unprofessional-looking.

So I need to somehow open up a conversation about expectations and hours. But I’m really not sure how to go about it. I’m very much a giver not a taker, and I have a strong back bone for anything that doesn’t affect me personally! But I wonder if a written contract or even just a basic contract template, both which I’ve so far neglected, could be the solution to my problem. Please help!

Expert’s Answer: You are, undoubtedly, in a tricky situation. And a situation that many freelancers and contractors find themselves in -- you’re always keen to find new work and, when you find this work, you’re keen to develop a reputation for an excellent standard of work and quality of customer service. Developing such a reputation can make attracting new work incrementally easier, whereas the opposite may find it harder to find work in the future.

The bind you're in: a summary

With regards to the particular problem you are facing with this particular client, you seem to be experiencing the following issues:

  1. The terms that you have agreed with the client are unclear, and you find yourself having to work hours you were not expecting to (and working more hours on the client’s work than you originally agreed to).
  2. The client is demanding, and expects prompt responses to communications irrespective of what time of day those communications are sent. You are finding this problematic.
  3. You find the client unprofessional in the way that they communicate with you.
  4. You are struggling to communicate with the client with regards to the above three points.
  5. You would like some guidance on where you can find a basic contract that you can use as a template

First and foremost freelancers, set clear expectations from the start

Regardless of the desire to please your clients, in my experience it is important to put in place the following at the start of a new business relationship (or a new contract with a previous/existing client):

  • Clarity on what the client is expecting you to do, how much you will be paid for the work (and the charging mechanisms), and how long that work will/should take. I would recommend discussing this initially with the client and then sending a template email to them setting out this information once the details have been agreed.
  • Manage the client’s expectations from the outset -- in particular, don’t over-promise and under-deliver (equally, if you under-promise and over-deliver you may find it difficult to find clients who want to instruct you, so it’s important to strike a good balance as to the promise-delivery ratio!). Calibrating those expectations will come from experience doing your job.
  • Always formalise your relationship with a client – and initiate this by sending them a copy of your terms and conditions. Related, always try to avoid situations where you’re doing work for a client without the client having seen and signed your Ts & Cs before you start work. Ultimately, this is protection for you. If the work goes sideways, or the client won’t pay, then you will need to prove to a court (if things get that far), what the terms of the contract were; how the client potentially breached those terms, and what you believe you’re owed. Be aware, while not impossible, this is very difficult to pull off without an agreed written contract.

How to deal with demanding clients who communicate at odd hours

This issue should, partly, be solved by setting clear expectations from the start of any work (as outlined above).

However, if you are finding a client’s manner or method of communication wearing, or the client communicates at odd hours, it can help to follow these basic rules:

  1. Put in your terms and conditions that you will answer any communications received from clients after 6pm (or later, if you work later) and before 8am (or earlier, if you start work earlier) the next business day.
  2. Set an automatic ‘out-of-office’ email outside of these working hours (informing third parties that you’ll look at their email the next working day).
  3. If a client is still contacting you at odd hours, just quickly confirm in writing to them (e.g. a short text, WhatsApp message or email) that you’ve seen their email and that you’ll deal with it first thing tomorrow.

If they insist that you respond to them immediately, make a decision -- is the work that you’re being asked to do objectively urgent? Will not doing the work damage your relationship with the client (and damage your ability to get future work)? Do you have other plans or family responsibilities that you’re supposed to be engaging in rather than dealing with the client? Weigh your professional and personal situation and respond accordingly – there’s no hard-and-fast rule.

Ultimately, most clients are reasonable people and understand that freelance professionals would like to work reasonable hours and have their own life outside of work. So if you make the ground rules clear from the start, you’re unlikely to have much of a problem. If some clients don’t respect that, then my personal view is that life is too short, and you may wish to refrain from doing business with that client again. However, think about your commercial imperatives: how important is the income stream from this client? How prestigious is the work? What’s the likelihood of future work from the client? And how much of a pain are they being?

How to deal with clients who are unprofessional in their communications

This is a very tricky one: you don’t want to offend your clients but, equally, you want the relationship between you and your clients to be a professional one.

My advice is that, unless the client is being abusive, aggressive or intimidating in their language (whether to you or anyone else) they are, ultimately, the client, and it’s up to them how they communicate with you – all you can do is try and maintain the standards that you set for yourself professionally and hope that your clients also set themselves equivalent standards. Who knows; your own standards or way of communicating might be infectious!

If the client is, however, being abusive, aggressive or intimidating in their language then you are perfectly within your rights to refrain from making any such comments and to maintain professional standards when communicating with you. Just because you’re working for someone, or operating on a commercial basis for a bigger or family-run outfit, it doesn’t mean that they can say or do anything they like to you.

Where to find a draft of a contract

The key to answering this question depends on what type of work you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. Are your clients businesses or individuals? What sector are you working in and what type of work are you doing? What contract is appropriate for one type of working relationship in a particular sector, may not be appropriate for a different type of working relationship in a different sector.

You are, I believe, a Virtual Assistant. Having done a bit of Google research myself the following website came up: https://www.societyofvirtualassistants.co.uk/va-products/

Please note, the inclusion of the above link is not an endorsement of the website within or any of the products/information listed on it.

But the society’s page does appear to contain some information that you might find useful.

Ultimately it is, in my experience, worth following one of the following paths to obtaining a freelance contract template:

  1. See if any of your competition have their contract template listed on their website and, if so, repurpose this for your own business.
  2. If you know other Virtual Assistants personally or professionally ask to see a copy of their contract and see if they will give you permission to repurpose this for your own business.
  3. Find a good contract-drafting website that you think you can trust (I can’t give recommendations as I don’t use any, given that I use my firm’s templates to draft contracts, but have a look around for one that you like)
  4. Should you want to establish your business dealings on a thoroughly commercial and legally-sound basis, instruct a solicitor to help you to draft a contract. It may be a bit more expensive than the other options, but ask around and see what quotes you get -- because a contract tailored to your needs as a freelancer should quickly pay for itself.

The expert was solicitor Chris Hadrill (pictured), partner in the employment team at Redmans Solicitors.

                             

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